Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor

Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor - Lisa Kleypas

While I didn't really enjoy reading this book I received via First Reads, it wasn't a bad book. Nothing about it made me want to walk away from it, but neither did anything really beg for me to continue. Reading through to the end just seemed the easiest thing to do.

 

Small business owner Mark Nolan has just had his life hit a giant bump in the road. Not only has his sister just died unexpectedly in a car accident, but he's also been named as the guardian of his six year-old niece, Holly. Since raising a little girl in a one-bedroom condo isn't possible, he's also moved in with his brother in a large fixer-upper Victorian on a vineyard. To top it all off, Holly has stopped speaking to anyone in the wake of her mother's death. Clearly, Mark has his hands full.

 

Maggie Conroy is a fellow business owner in their small island community off the coast of Seattle. Unlike Mark, she didn't grow up there, having just moved in a few months ago to open a toy store. She's decided to move somewhere new and start fresh after her husband's death from cancer just a few years ago. Very much Mark's opposite in many ways - as whimsical as he is realistic, from a large, close family as opposed to his smaller, acrimonious one - he's completely captivated by her and her ability to coax Holly out of her silent shell. Maggie herself is drawn to Mark's quiet calm and good looks, though she declares him off-limits since he's involved with someone else and she's unwilling to risk her heart so soon after her husband's death.

 

All of this is a really great set-up for a book. Clearly you can see how straitlaced Mark, wary of marriage and commitment after living through his parents' contentious relationship, would be attracted to the fanciful toy store owner from a big, happy family. It makes sense that younger sibling Maggie would find herself drawn to the quiet, serious and responsible older brother in Mark. What Kleypas failed to do, however, is to take these excellent character sketches and wonderful plot concept and make it come alive as a story.

 

Instead, the characters and action feel a bit lost in the storytelling. I think a big part of the reason for this lies with the book's length. Kleypas generally writes full-length novels and it felt like she just couldn't adjust the pacing to the shorter length. As if she felt she needed to cram in a 90k word novel's worth of background and scenery in a short space, parts of the novel read like a tourist brochure.

 

"Growing up in the Edgemoor neighborhood of Bellingham, Maggie and her brothers and sisters had explored the trails of Chuckanut Mountain and played along the shores of Bellingham Bay. The quiet neighborhood offered views of both the San Juans and the Canadian mountains. It was also situated next to Fairhaven, where you could browse through unique shops and galleries, or eat at restaurants where the waiters could always tell you about the freshest catch and where it had been bought from."

 

She names every shop, restaurant and geographical feature the characters come across, no matter how inconsequential to the story it may be. When the characters mention going to the house Mark lives in, either in speech or pov prose, she always spells it out as Rainshadow Vineyard, never simply "home," "the house," "Mark's home," etc. It felt so much like brand marketing that the setting never felt immersive to me.

 

Then, for all the time she spends on the niggling details of the environment, the romance felt rushed. Some of their encounters felt natural - his visiting her store, their riding the ferry at the same time coincidentally - but as we got closer to the end of the book, they felt more and more contrived. I did a major headshake when, after meeting her once during trick-or-treating with Holly, Mark's brother calls Maggie to help him with a feverish, puking Holly when Mark was away. I know people think Bostonians are cold, but this is calling on a mere acquaintance for something most people would be reluctant to ask an old friend to do. After this, Mark and Maggie go from subtle flirtation and unacknowledged attraction to engagement in less than two months. They go from first sexual encounter, still with Maggie's insistence that it be casual and not a committed relationship, to engaged in just a few days. Their HEA totally was a "Holy shit! I'm at the end of my word count!" sort of thing.

 

Since my review is almost as long as the book at this point, I'll stuff a sock in it. To sum up, good idea with weak execution. Not bad, but far from her best.